Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

10.5. Forms of Life: Theatre Forms as an Articulated Way of Life
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Herbert Gantschacher (Klagenfurt)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Art and Imagination: the impact of stereotyping

Brenda Harker (Oakland, California)


My essay calls attention to ways in which negative images align themselves with bell hook's (1996) concept of neo-colonialism or social apartheid. However, I wish to branch in a somewhat different direction than hooks by examining theatrical, literary, and cinematic stereotypes. I argue that negative stereotypes are not only injurious to the group that they portray, but to society in general. In arguing this point, I assess the dehumanizing effect on the subject and the object of various stereotypes, and their relation to what Jean-Paul Sartre (1943, 1957) called "the Look."

I bring about this dialogue through the use of a number of sources. After presenting an abbreviated survey a brief epistemology of stereotypes from nineteenth-century minstrelsy to mid-twentieth-century films, I discuss James Baldwin's (1955) assessment of the role of the protest novel. He claims that instead of protesting stereotypes, the so-called protest novels perpetuate them.

I also draw on Sartre's (1943) conclusion on "Otherness." Sartre's views on the subject-object relation provide an opportunity to solidify my argument by utilizing his observation that no growth is possible so long as there is a denial of either of these terms. The proposition of Otherness is delineated further in Frantz Fanon's paradigm, in which Fanon finds himself the only black at a French cinema, wherein he is regarded in a disconcerting way. To set this circumstance in the context of my argument, I use Kaja Silverman's cinematic analysis of the Look to underscore the effect of the negative filmic image on one's "corporeal schema" (to borrow a term from Fanon). Then I conclude with bell hooks's claim that stereotyping is a new form of social apartheid.

Let me begin with my historical outline.

Minstrelsy was crude and dehumanizing, but, more importantly, it succeeded in fixing one stereotype deeply in American consciousness: the shiftless, lazy, negligent, loudmouthed, flashily dressed "Negro," with kinky hair and large lips, who is addicted, as Lofton Mitchell (1967) wrote, "to the eating of watermelon and chicken, the drinking of gin, [and] the shooting of dice" (p. 31).

In 1823, Edwin Forrest's black-faced performance in The Tailor in Distress was ironically praised by a reviewer as "the first realistic representation of the plantation Negro" (cited by Mitchell, 1967, p. 26). In the 1820s, a white actor named George Nichols impersonated blacks and popularized songs like "Zip Coon" and "Coal Black Rose" (Mitchell, 1967). However, it was not until 1828 that Thomas "Daddy" Rice, a Caucasian actor, imitated the singing and shuffling of a "Negro" hustler with burnt-cork makeup in a so-called Ethiopian Opera (Mitchell, 1967). Sterling Brown documents this further, "It must be remembered that Ethiopian minstrelsy was white masquerade; Negro performers were not allowed to appear in it until after the Civil War; it was composed by whites, acted and sung by whites in burnt cork for white audiences" (Mitchell, 1967, p. 19). In 1843, this image was further endorsed when Daniel Emmitt brought his Virginia Minstrels onto the New York stage with their rendition of "Dixie." As Lofton Mitchell (1967) states, "Though black-face minstrelsy started with a rudimentary realism, it soon degenerated into fantastic caricature and artificiality" (p. 31).(1)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the "tragic mulatto" became another abolitionist's dramatic stereotype. In 1859, playwright Dion Roucecault produced his play The Octoroon (Mitchell, 1967). His heroine Zoe, the octoroon, is a tragic figure-a mixture of pride in her white blood, on the one hand, and of forgiveness for her black blood, on the other. This stereotype would be a prototype for years to follow, in films such as Imitation of Life. Zoe is devoted to her dead white father-who, incidentally, failed to guarantee her freedom. In addition, she cannot marry the white man she loves. Most important, Roucecault's work brought blacks further disdain by convincing audiences, in Mitchell's (1967) words, "that it was a black man's white blood that made him intelligent, while 'black' blood was painted as 'unclean'" (p. 35).

In 1906, Thomas Dixon's The Clansman: an historical romance of the Klu Klux Klan appeared in New York. It had been published the year before by Doubleday, Page, and Company. It was filmed later as The Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffiths and reflected negative stereotypical attitudes toward blacks. It glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, characterizing whites in blackface as what Mitchell (1967) describes as "brutes whose emancipation was a grave error" (1967, p. 39). The film was lauded at the time for its outstanding technological innovations, which included long shots, close-ups, dollies, panoramic shots, and parallel story editing. These advancements complicated the efforts made by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to have the film banned as racist. Birth of a Nation portrays Reconstruction as a time when "black" congressmen (played by white actors in black-face) placed their bare feet on their congressional desks while gobbling down watermelons and fried chickens.

Ironically, after the Civil War, blacks performed in blackface, too. As James Weldon Johnson (Mitchell, 1975)(2) wrote, the black actor became "a caricature of a caricature, for he, too, blackened his own face and imitated himself being imitated" (Mitchell, 1975, p. 20; 1967, p. 40). In effect, the black actor had joined the league of minstrels against himself.

The issue of racial identity would perplex and continue to repeat itself, and finally the complexity of these stereotypes would overwhelm the "Negro." Later works like George Gershwin's Pogy and Bess (1935) and Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954) were still constitutive of the repertoire of condemning image-making data. These works only reiterate black incompetence and failure.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is another example of the irony and inconsistency of the black's image in American life. The main character Reverend Mr. Josiah Benson, having been a runaway slave, who had worked with the Underground Railroad, becomes a submissive and all-forgiving loyal soul, much like the image of the fearful-of-freedom "darkies" in the film Gone with the Wind.

In "Everybody's Protest Novel," James Baldwin critically observes:

Uncle Tom's Cabin is a bad novel [...]. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion is the mark of dishonesty [and] the inability to feel [;] the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; always, therefore, the signals of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle Tom's Cabin-like multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants-is a catalogue of violence. This is explained by Mrs. Stowe's subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation, which falters, only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture, is indeed complete.(3)

Baldwin points out further, "White men are not what they take themselves to be, and 'Negroes' are different from the popular image of them."(4) Additionally, in "Everybody's Protest Novel," Baldwin lashes out against Richard Wright's classic novel Native Son, accusing Wright of perpetuating the same vicious stereotypical assault against blacks as that made by white supremacists. Baldwin states that Native Son is a pessimistic novel whose protagonist has no redeeming features. He is caught in a labyrinth of confusion, fear, and ignorance. The novel never evokes light or enlightenment. "The failure of these protest novels," Baldwin continues, "lies in their rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, and power" and in their insistence that "it is this categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended."(5) Incidentally, the inclusion of Wright's Native Son in the condemning category created an irreparable rife between the two writers. However, Baldwin is clear about the role of the protest novel. He extols Ralph Ellison's premier novel The invisible man as a true example of protest and enlightenment: The invisible man's journey is transcendent. He chooses his world. He is thinking man, articulate and seeks to determine his own destiny. His view is existential. He constructs the world of his own making. Otherness is minimalized, eventually, by self-determination.

I continue with the Frantz Fanon paradigm, which I contextualize from a Silverman filmic perspective. Here, we examine the Look as it relates to being marginalized from another angle since Fanon has not yet entered the cinema. In Black Skin, White Mask, Fanon offers an explanation of the meaning of being black in a society that privileges whiteness. This privilege is inclusive of the various categories of "the gaze" and the screen that relates to bodily ego. Fanon suggests that we conceptualize the psychic dilemma faced by the subject when he is obliged to identify with an image that he repudiates and that provides him neither idealization nor pleasure. Fanon states, "This image is hostile to the formation of the 'coherent' identity. The "interpellation" into "negritude" of the dark-skinned male subject forces him to reject and to shun identification.(6) Fanon's concern is with the psychic violence perpetrated onto the typical male inhabitant of one of France's former colonies upon his entry into French society.(7) Let me pause here to remind readers that this macrocosmic view is representative of that of the larger group. Identification with stereotypes result in collective consciousness. Scathing images are representations from which any subject would recoil; yet, in spite of this, the image turns into a "mirror" that induces even greater unpleasant identification. Fanon describes going to a cinema in Paris, where he finds himself regarded in a distressing way. As he waits for the film to begin, he feels himself being observed. He believes that he is already "latent" in the Look of those around him. This Look conjures images of a stereotypical and menial blackness. He yields to "self-voluntary, cultural isolation." The "pre-representations" within which Fanon feels obliged to recognize in himself come directly from the personal prejudices of the audience (ibid.) The power to confer meaning is largely within the collective white look.

'Look a Negro!' It was an external stimulus that flicked over me as I passed by. I made a tight smile. 'Look a Negro!' The circle was drawing a bit tighter. "Mama, see that Negro! I'm frightened!' Frightened! Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself into tears, but the laughter had become impossible.(8)

"I [subject] myself to an objective examination, where I [discover] my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I [am] battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all: 'Sho' good eatin'," Fanon recounts.(9) The Other had produced Fanon out of a thousand anecdotes that he thought were a construct of his physical self. Fanon could not laugh, because he had already internalized the condemning history. The involuntary nature of Fanon's negative identification with "negritude" and the destructive effects it had upon what was previously his bodily ego "assailed at various point and [his preexisting] corporeal schema crumble[s]" (ibid.) The mirror, which the French look, held in front of Fanon is radically de idealized and is "forever in combat with my own image, battling with it as with a mortal enemy."(10) "I took myself far off from my own presence, far indeed and made myself an object," he reminisces. "What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that splattered my whole body with black blood?"(11)

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, this view of Otherness constitutes "being-as-object," and thereby, constitutes one as defenseless. The object is a projection of values that qualify him without his being able to change, to modify or even to understand those qualifications completely. He is the instrument of possibilities beyond his control, which deny him transcendence in order to constitute him as a means to an end. The object is, therefore, in danger of his being constructed as "being-for-others."(12) In general, racial, class, and gender determiners encourage the configuration of the Look and move it away from the idealized image of a person. The Look is the objectification of the other. Thereby, Otherness is seen as loathsome. In this sense, Fanon, the object of the gaze, is considered a "slave" in relation to his appearance as the Other. This "slavery" is the result of his being overcome by the values imposed by the voyeur. The object of the Look is a slave because his being is produced by the subject of the gaze's freedom. It inhabits the brutality, resentment, disrespect, and envy of the voyeur.(13) The black subject described by Fanon is not only in "combat" with the image in which he is "photographed" by the white gaze, but he is also surprisingly drawn to the "mirror" of an ideal "whiteness." The Other is responsible for imposing upon him an undesirable identification with negritude.(14) The gaze becomes elusive. It is everywhere and nowhere. The gaze aligns with the white and the male Look. It represents the white male Look as the privileged "functionary" of the camera/gaze.(15) This state is the essential condition of his being. The consequence of forced identification on the object's part is an abhorrent visual image. Struggling to prevent that image from being intended onto his body, the marginalized person refuses to confer "presence" upon the image. As a result, a violent struggle between recognition and unrecognition ensues. Fanon's "corporeal schema crumbles." He finds himself occupying not one point in space, but two or three. "It was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person, but in a triple person,"(16) Fanon writes. This decomposition occurs because it is precipitated by a compulsory identification with an intolerable image. It is experienced as an imaginary, but violent mutilation of the body into bits and pieces. Forced identification with tainted art forms provokes nightmarish imagination.

Conversely, the ideal cinematic spectator is constructed through identification with the camera, which must always be socially sanctioned. Hence, a transcendental vision and spectatorial pleasure are dependent on this defining point of view. The viewer's ability to see the boundlessness of the image is essential. However, at the moment that the frame becomes apparent, and the viewer realizes that she is seeing a pregiven and contaminated spectacle, her original alignment with the image is lost.(17) As a result, she distances this image from the spectatorial eye. This point I make in the Fanon paradigm in which he attends to the French cinema, but it is in a different context.

For Fanon, the resulting experience is bodily disintegration. It corresponds to the decomposition fantasy of a fragmented body. The Fanon paradigm helps us understand a marginalized subject's identification with those of a more despised corporeality rather than that of a normative corporeality. Here, we see the binary opposition between the normative and the despised corporeality. The trivialized subject in Western society is forced to impose a double identity-one of the idealized self and the other that which the look conjures. In Fanon, identity manifests itself by extolling whiteness and shunning blackness. Opposition to the ego ideal manifests itself as an undesirable identification. This imposition results from an image so de-idealizing that no one would knowingly identify with it. (18) Under this type of dominant Western-mirroring, the subject moves as far away as possible from the unbearable image.

The disparity between the Look of the sensational ego and that of the unpleasant identification can be explained as follows: the successful alignment is with the camera itself. It gives the viewer access to a seemingly invisible vision; however, such an alignment is from a vantage point outside the spectacle. Identification also implies a vision, which is exterior to time and body. This vision offers illusory pleasure as an unavoidable feature of the cinematic experience.(19) The viewing subject is constituted in and through this fiction.

Returning to the initial theme, bell hook's construction of neo-colonialism refers to the stereotypical being as the underlying structure of domination. She argues that white supremacy is kept in place by methods of socialization that enable blacks and whites to think of racism "in personal terms." That is, individuals think of racism as having inherent prejudicial tendencies rather than its having a consciously mapped-out strategy of domination, systematically maintained. She says, whites colonized blacks; "as a structure of domination defined as the conquest and ownership of one people by another. Hooks reminds us that blacks had formerly been dominated by a system of chattel slavery, but once they were emancipated, the new infrastructure imposed a new form of control-a new form of "social apartheid" which institutionalized media images in order to promote a "philosophy of racial inferiority" (ibid.). "Colonialism aptly describes that process by which blacks were and continue to be subordinated by white supremacy."(20) This strategy needed no country, for its province is the mind. American apartheid permeates the minds of society and expands itself as a worldview.

White supremacists construct a deception, creating stereotypes that eclipse man's potential. By constructing the buffoon, buck, brute, Uncle Tom, mammy, Sapphire, Aunt Jemima, and the tragic mulatto stereotypes, supremacists act as if their inhumanity were the only possible account of humanity. This eclipse gives the appearance that supremacists are practicing good faith by "cleaning up the universe" when, in fact, they are making themselves look good at the expense of others. As a result they call upon themselves to "civilize" the savage into servitude and bring "culture" to the backward. The parading of stereotypes from one century to the next propagates a fantastic caricature and formulates neo-colonialism.

Further, "Racial stereotyping encourages white hostility and fear of African-Americans."(21) Robert Staples writing in his essay entitled "Black Men in Public Spaces," states that the burden placed on black males in America is disproportionate and damaging. Robert Entman tells us that people process information by using stored categories called "schemas." These "are like mental filing cabinets that allow individuals to group like objects" (ibid.) together in their minds. By assimilating new data with that already stored in a "schema," people interpret and make sense of bits and pieces of information. But he warns us, "This organizational system proliferates the inaccurate beliefs and negative emotions that underpin prejudic[al] thinking. In this way we are bombarded with data that keeps us entrenched in perpetuating the same mindsets. If the new information an individual keeps encountering fits the negative categories, prejudic[al] thinking can continue and grow" (ibid.).

Sartre speaking of the human condition indicates that Man's condition may vary. He may be born a slave or a proletarian. "What does not vary is the necessity for him to exist in the world, to be at work there, to be there in the midst of other people, and to be mortal there."(22) Unless man is able to freely determine his existence with reference to these limits, he will not be free. Consequently, every "configuration," of the condition of man, however, unique and individual has a universal value because every configuration can be implicit and understood: "I build the universe in choosing myself; I build it in understanding the configuration of every other man, whatever the [epoch] he might have lived."(23) We come to ourselves in the presence of others, who are as real to us as we are to ourselves. A woman who becomes aware of herself perceives all others as the condition of her own existence. She realizes that she cannot be anything unless others recognize her as such.(24)

This view of Otherness contrasts with that which has been expressed as loathsome, Here, Otherness is intrinsic to the self and to the knowledge of self. This renewed concept of Otherness is key to my project, for it clarifies the relationship of stereotypes to man's collective well being. Conversely, impulses to assert oneself as superior result in the dehumanization and depletion of the other. Slander, blasphemy, and stereotypes are tools of the adversary. They perpetuate separatism. Consequently, man's effort to solidify a common ground and to unite forces is blocked.

In reality, I cannot produce a finite conclusion that obliterates the stereotype, but I hope to succeed in raising a few questions. In order to throw off negative stereotypes, we must create effective tools of assessing the historical and cultural significance of negative images and their relevant stereotypical value in various contexts and categories of bad taste. Stereotypes speak to there being only one black identity, the one of pig feet and the figure licking of "Sho' good eatin'." The search for iconic protagonists who represent a more diverse constituency is an important element in the cultural politics of diversity. The process of introducing icons with more diverse appeal has had some effects on culture and in society. A few independent filmmakers and playwrights are involved in producing projects that affirm a more realistic identity.

To conclude, I recall something Sartre said: if man was to see himself in the Other, he would realize the liberty that he bestows upon himself, can easily be bestowed onto others. Stereotypes cancel liberation. As beings, sharing in common, we must endorse a culturally diverse image-repertoire that contributes in good faith to the art and imagination of all men for "we come to ourselves in the presence of others who are a real as we are to ourselves."

© Brenda Harker (Oakland, California)


(1) Brown, Sterling. (1937), The Negro in the American Theatre. New York: Oxford Company.

(2) Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan.

(3) Baldwin, p. 14

(4) Baldwin, p. 204

(5) Baldwin, p. 23

(6) Fanon, p. 111

(7)  Ibid.

(8) Ibid. p. 112

(9) Ibid.

(10) Fanon, p. 194

(11) Ibid.

(12) Sartre, Being, p. 268

(13) Sartre, Being, p. 268

(14) Fanon, p. 112

(15) Silverman, p. 27

(16) Fanon, p. 112

(17) Ibid. p. 126

(18) Silverman, p. 29

(19) Ibid., p. 126

(20) hooks, Reader, pp. 403-4 [108-9].

(21) Robert M. Entman states speaking in relation to television (Reader, p. 409 [372])

(22) Sartre, p. 38

(23) Ibid. p. 39

(24) Ibid. p. 38


Baldwin, James. (1955). Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press.

Brown, Sterling. (1937). The Negro in the American Theatre. New York: Oxford Company.

Entman, Robert M. (1999). "African Americans According to TV News." In Rethinking the Color Line: Reading in Race and Ethnicity. Charles A. Gallagher.

Fanon, Frantz. (1967). Black Skin, White Mask. New York: Grove Press.

hooks, bell. (1996). "Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media." Killing Rage: Ending Racism.

Mitchell, Loften. (1967). Black Drama. New York: Hawthorne Books.

-----. (1975). Voices of the Black Theatre. Clifton, New Jersey: James T. White.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1943). Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library.

-----. (1957). Existentialism. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Wisdom Library.

Silverman, Kaja. (1996). The Threshold of the Visual World. New York: Routledge.

10.5. Forms of Life Theatre Forms as an Articulated Way of Life

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